Lawmakers Adjust Hurricane Program

May 6, 2008

The Tampa Tribune--May 4, 2008

The Tampa Tribune

TAMPA – Improving the My Safe Florida Home program may take time, lawmakers said Friday, after unanimously passing legislation to further tweak the state’s hurricane inspection and home improvement program.

The program was created in 2006 to help Florida homeowners identify how well their homes might withstand hurricanes, and to provide grant money to eligible residents to make recommended improvements to areas such as window and door openings and bracing on roofs.

House Bill 7103, co-sponsored by Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota, tries to address both those needs.

It requires increased scrutiny of hurricane inspectors and inspection firms to ensure prior experience and proper certification, and it creates a new opportunity for residents to pay for home improvements.

The legislation now heads to Gov. Charlie Crist.

"We wanted to make sure these were people who knew what they were doing," Justice said of the effort to hire more qualified inspectors.

My Safe Florida Home officials announced last year that they would start requiring additional training of inspectors, including more hands-on field training. Kevin Cate, a spokesman for the Department of Financial Services, which oversees the program, said Friday that effort started this year.

Lawmakers were unable to reach consensus on other issues, said state Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz.

The Tampa Tribune for months has reported on problems with nearly every facet of My Safe Florida Home – from discrepancies in the inspection process and questions about inspector training to deficiencies with the awarding of grants.

Ambler said Friday that improving the quality of inspections is a key revision, but legislators can "move deeper if necessary."

"Those of us who are aware of the issues have to remain vigilant," he said. "Progress in this case is incremental. … We’re trying to do the least intrusive amount of regulation that we have to."

The Legislature in 2006 allocated $250 million to the program, asking that 400,000 free inspections be completed and 35,000 grants awarded by June 2009. Lawmakers did not provide more funding this year.

The bill also calls for the creation of a new, no-interest loan program to help homeowners statewide buy materials to better fortify their homes.

The Legislature appropriated $10 million of its original allocation for the loan program.

Justice said the bill should help residents with credit cards purchase materials, such as new windows and window coverings, from approved vendors with and not pay interest for 36 months.

The loan program could be active soon, he said, if program officials are able to reach agreement with vendors on acceptable interest rates or the type of construction materials that would qualify.

If not, he said, the $10 million would be used for more inspections and grants.